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Monday, February 28, 2022

The Death Of Ivan Ilyich–Tolstoy And The Final Irrelevance Of The Past

Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a story about an arrogant man who keeps life at a distance.  He is proper, punctual, and dutifully responsible at work, but is indifferent to his colleagues.  He is an equally dutiful husband, but one without love or affection.  Life is an intrusion, he feels, a nuisance, an unpredictable mess best kept simple and uninvolved.  Since he has ordered his life so completely, the prospect of intrusion, sickness or death are only possibilities. 

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He learns that he has cancer, and after going through four of the five Kubler-Ross stages of dying – denial, anger, bargaining, depression – he cannot face the fifth, acceptance.  How can he possibly accept nothingness, the meaningless of the past, and the desperately frightening, unknown future?  As he becomes more ill and necessarily withdraws from his old, familiar life, he finds that he is not missed.  His colleagues discuss the disposition of his office and affairs.  His wife plans a happier, more independent life.  The world he has so carefully constructed is not only of no use whatsoever, but it is a house of cards.  Whatever bonhomie, good will, and friendship he was shown was nothing but a sham, a shameless disregard.

Acceptance of death for Ivan Ilyich is particularly difficult because of the nature of his past.  It is not one of fond memories, happy reminiscences, and nostalgia.  It is one without feeling and substance.  In his desire to keep bothersome people, events, and happenstance at bay, he has created a soulless existence and now turned into meaningless past.

An acquaintance commenting on the slow death of a friend, remarked, “Well, he had a good life”.  Memories of what he accomplished, whom he had loved, where he had travelled will sustain him in his last moments, suggested the acquaintance.  Tolstoy disagrees.  Not only do we face death entirely alone, but the successes, failures, loves, misfortunes, and adventures of the past have no relevance whatsoever.  Looking into the dark, unknowable abyss no memory – as meanspirited and hard-bitten as it might be – can pull Ivan Ilyich back from the dark hole of non-being.

He eventually, but only in his last minutes of life, is suddenly unafraid.  He was afraid of the act of dying, he thinks, not death itself.

“And death…where is it?”

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.

In place of death there was light.

“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”

In his final moments, he is able both to let go of the past and embrace his unknowable future.  In those final moments he – like all of those near death - is totally, completely, inexorably alone.

What dying man – like the remembered friend suffering from advanced Parkinson’s - thinks of his law partnership and court cases he has won, lucrative Wall Street investments, winters in Gstaad and summers in St. Tropez? Or lost loves? Or awards, children’s marriages, or his own long marital partnership? 

No, he thinks of his failing body, his mental disability, his paralysis, his incontinence, and his death.  His wealth, fabulous Victorian apartment in the 7th, the finest examples of Art Nouveau, modernism, and Renaissance painting on his walls, his exquisite Persian silk carpets, his Italian sconces, Louis XIV chandeliers – none can distract him from the inevitable.  He does not look on his Francis Bacon triptych with pleasure or memories of his success at the Sotheby auction where he successfully bid for it, nor the Roman reproduction of a Greek Aphrodite in his hall.  Even if he were still in his apartment and not in a nursing home attached to tubes and electrodes, he would not pay attention to his acquisitions or his memories. 

Death not only extinguishes life but extinguishes the past.  The final lines of The Death of Ivan Ilyich are these:

“It is finished!” said someone near him.

He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

“Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more!”

He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.

Death is finished, he says.  His constant, frightful companion of the last months is no more.  He has settled his accounts with death, not with life.  He does not murmur prayers of contrition for his sins, does not beg forgiveness, nor beseech his family to think of him kindly.   There is no point in reconciliation with the past, no benefit, no salvation; for it has no relevance to nothingness to come.

Despite the fact that Tolstoy wrote the line, “It is finished” in what many critics see as an unmistakable reference to Christ’s last words on the cross, Tolstoy expresses no particularly Christian sentiments – that repentance is the key to the door of Paradise, that a dying man will only be welcomed by the Almighty if he confesses his earthly sins.  It is only with death itself that Ivan Ilyich deals.  Death is the only final, ultimate reality; and at the moment of death he neither thinks of the past nor of eternity.  He will soon simply be dead.

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The Death of Ivan Ilyich is neither a nihilistic tale – Tolstoy is rightly thought of as a nihilist – nor a Christian one, nor a dramatic one.  Death, he writes, comes in no recognizable package, it is an end in and of itself.  It is in fact the only important moment of life, the one truly existential moment when one finally ceases to imagine eternity and actually sees it.

Tolstoy struggled with such existential questions for most of his adult life.  For decades he sought meaning and purpose.  How ironic and cruel, Konstantin Levin says in Anna Karenina, that God made us brilliant, creative, astute, and generous; gave us but a few decades of life, and then consigned us for all eternity in the cold, hard grounds of the steppes.   

In his A Confession Tolstoy writes of his philosophical struggle and of his failed conviction that answers can be found in art, science, mathematics, and history.  Finally, exhausted and unsatisfied he realizes that tens of millions of people believe in God and that billions before him have had profound faith.  Maybe, he reckons, there is something to it. He backs into faith like Levin who admits that he has no answers but that doing good is the closest he can come to them. If so many people believe in God, Tolstoy reflects, why shouldn't he?

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Tolstoy wrote A Confession in 1880 and Ivan Ilyich six years later in 1886.  His long-sought philosophical equanimity expressed in his memoir had been sorely tested, and in his short story he returned to his native intellectual roots. Death just is.

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